Russia emerges as major partner for Turkey’s Syria policy
Istanbul - In a sign of an emerging alliance two years after Turkish- Russian relations plunged into crisis, Ankara is banking on Moscow to help Turkey reach its main goals regarding the conflict in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had four hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It was the second meeting of the two leaders in two months and their fifth encounter this year. Another Erdogan-Putin session in Sochi, this time including Iranian President Hassan Rohani, is set for November 22.
Turkey recently sent troops into the Syrian province of Idlib following an agreement with Russia and Iran to set up so-called de-escalation zones in Syria. The increasing Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syrian matters stands in stark contrast to differences between Turkey and the United States, its traditional ally, over US support for Syrian Kurds.
Only hours before the Sochi talks on November 14, Erdogan slammed US and Russian policies in Syria, saying the two global powers should withdraw their military forces from the war-torn country if they were serious about a political solution of the 6-year-old conflict.
The Turkish leader referred to a statement by Putin and US President Donald Trump that there was “no military solution” to the war in Syria. Erdogan said Turkey knew better than other players “what is going on in the region.” Turkey shares a 900km border with Syria and has taken in 3 million refugees from the country since fighting there started in 2011.
While Erdogan was critical of the Putin-Trump statement before he sat down with the Russian president in Sochi, his outlook was markedly different afterward. Emerging from talks with Putin, Erdogan said: “There is now a base that allows us to focus on the political process.” The Russian president stressed that, with respect to Syria, Moscow and Ankara were “united in the need to increase efforts to ensure the long-term stabilisation, above all to advance the process of a political settlement.”
The show of unity in Sochi came two years after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border. The November 24, 2015, incident, which killed a pilot and a Russian soldier taking part in a rescue mission, triggered a political crisis between Ankara and Moscow, with Russia blocking Turkish imports and Russian tourists boycotting Turkish holiday destinations.
The spat ended with an apology by Erdogan in June 2016. Since then, relations rapidly improved. Erdogan’s November 14 meeting with Putin marked a “historic high in Turkish-Russian relations,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said.
Analysts said Turkey, frustrated by US policies in Syria, regards Russia as a partner that can help Ankara reach its main goal in the Syrian conflict: Stopping Syria’s Kurds from expanding the area under their control along the Turkish border and preventing the Kurds from forming their own state there.
Ankara said Russia postponed a conference bringing together different Syrian groups following Turkish objections to an invitation for two Syrian-Kurdish organisations. The Turkish government said the two groups, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and the West. The PYD and the YPG are US partners in the fight against the Islamic State.
As blocking the Kurds has become a priority for Ankara, the Turkish government is signalling that its opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad is softening, analysts said. Deposing Assad was Erdogan’s focus in the first years of the Syrian war.
Aykan Erdemir, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, and a former Turkish lawmaker, pointed out that Erdogan referred to the Assad regime as the “central government” of Syria. That wording was an indirect acceptance of Damascus by Erdogan and “a sign that he was ready to accept the legitimacy of and a role for Assad in post-war Syria,” Erdemir said via e-mail.
Murat Yetkin, a columnist for Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, wondered whether “Ankara has started wto cooperate with Damascus via Moscow.” Erdogan might be signalling Turkey’s readiness to agree with the Russian position to allow Assad to stay in power for a transitional period after an end of the fighting in Syria, Yetkin wrote.
Turkey’s opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu went further, saying “Erdogan is working for Assad now.” Speaking to the Haberturk newspaper, Kilicdaroglu criticised a “180-degree turn” by Erdogan because the president had rejected talk of a political solution for Syria before embracing the same idea after meeting Putin several hours later.
Erdemir said the change of course regarding Assad would not be easy for Erdogan to manage domestically after years of presenting the Syrian president as the main obstacle for peace in Syria and of supporting Sunni groups fighting the Assad government. “It is a challenge for an Islamist leader like Erdogan to make a U-turn on Assad,” Erdemir said. “Erdogan, however, has demonstrated his infinite political flexibility before.”